CRICKET: No respite for England in bastion of spin

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The Independent Online
We can only hope that England's cricketers kept the blinds down on their porthole windows during the descent to Sydney airport. Botany Bay provides a tranquil enough view, as does the Harbour Bridge, but as the flight path now embraces a giant pos ter ofShane Warne, the sight of England's nemesis smiling up at them might have produced a greater outbreak of gibbering than the pilot announcing that the undercarriage had dropped off.

Neither is Sydney the kind of venue calculated to provide anything other than a further drain on what remains of England's bruised and battered morale. Facing Warne on any surface is a case of cross yourself, croak a few Hail Mary's, and plunge hopefullyforward, but on the SCG's spinner-friendly surface, it could make the Brisbane and Melbourne Tests look like heroic triumphs.

It is a curious fact that the last major bastion of spin bowling in Test cricket is not in some dusty outpost of the Orient, but here in the brash land of the meat-pie-sponsored action replay, and the Tony Greig weather-watch machine. With its sand-basedBulli soil, the SCG is the spiritual home of the game's twirly men, and even Allan Border's occasional left-arm twiddlers brought him 11 wickets in a Test match here in 1989.

The bounce will not be as uneven as in Melbourne, but as Warne could make a scotch egg turn at right angles off a duvet, Sydney is still not good news for a side 2-0 down with three to play. There is one historical precedent for a team winning the Ashes from this position, but on that occasion a fairly handy batsman by the name of Bradman was involved, and he did not have to face anyone quite like Warne.

Warne has half England's 40 wickets in the series, at an average of 9.5 runs per scalp. Jim Laker's Ashes record of 46 wickets in a series is seriously under threat, and far from anyone entertaining thoughts that an England revival is in the offing, the bookies' quote of 9-4 for them to lose this series 5-0 looks to be one of their more generous offerings. Only once has that scoreline been recorded in an Ashes series, and neither side has managed, as England are about to do, to lose four consecutive series.

That is enough of the optimism. This team is a shambles, and the only thing that can be remotely offered in mitigation is an injury list of such proportions that, at the current rate of replacements, the 16 who flew here will bear no resemblance to the 16 who fly back.

Only two players have escaped any kind of bodily malfunction, Graham Gooch and Steven Rhodes. Even here, Rhodes' wicketkeeping is enough to make you suspect an acute case of bad hands, and Gooch has now begun to bat like an ancient relic, as well as sound like one.

England have no problems over their batting (which is one way of looking at it when you only have six fit batsmen) and will doubtless reject the idea of playing Shaun Udal on the grounds that Graeme Hick can bowl, and they dare not risk only two seamers.Whether to play Angus Fraser instead of Devon Malcolm, however, will be a much closer debate.

Australia, on the other hand, are a side in total harmony. If they have the desire to go for 5-0, they will probably achieve it, and in Craig McDermott and Warne they have the two class bowlers on either side. Warne has also achieved the near impossible in that even the Americans, who haven't a clue who Bradman and Botham are, appear to be aware that Shane is not necessarily a Western starring Alan Ladd.

The aforementioned Warne poster is actually an advertisement for a sports shoe also endorsed by Andre Agassi, and the American tennis player has told his agent to get hold of some tickets to the cricket when he comes here for the Australian Open, specifically to watch Warne. If it is a fifth-day ticket, though, he might be unlucky.

Australia have not even replaced the out-of-form Michael Bevan, and if they have anything at all to worry about at the moment, it is the fact that beating England gives them no real barometer as to how good they really are. For that, they will have to wait a couple of months until they go to the West Indies.

England's problems are a good deal more deeply rooted, and Raymond Illingworth was yesterday making the same complaints about the self-centred nature of the county system that his predecessors all tried, and failed, to alter. As far back as 1978, Alec Bedser filed reports warning that one-day cricket was damaging bowling standards, and he is still, he revealed in Melbourne, waiting for a reply.

Illingworth, though, appears to be as confused as everyone else currently involved with the England team, judging by yesterday's comments about his captain. He first complained that Michael Atherton wasn't doing enough to gee up his players, then said that Atherton's motivational qualities were actually rather good, and that people should not judge him by hand signals or decibel levels.

"Atherton's belief that people should be capable of doing their own jobs is right, but sometimes people need reminding. He's been to Cambridge (University) and he's never been out to work in his life. He's told me the players have worked hard, but then Isee people wandering around the dressing-room wearing headphones."

However, once Illy had effectively described his skipper as a privileged swot who would have learned more about discipline if he had worked in a coal mine, he suddenly switched tack. "Just because he doesn't shout, bawl, and wave his arms doesn't mean hecan't motivate. He's a very positive captain, and his position is under no threat from me."

If this does not succeed in confusing Atherton even more, nothing will, but at least Illy, who is going home after this Test, was clarity itself on the fact that he will not consider a full-time, all-winter role. "It's too hard," he said,"and you can judge things just as well in your own armchair." So there we have it. The Test and County Cricket Board's most urgent priority is not to prune one-day cricket, or install a two-division championship at all, but to dispatch, with all haste, a new three piecesuite to Farsley.

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